I am currently in between my junior and senior years of pursuing a BS in computer science at the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering. This is a message to myself as well as to other struggling college students: Don’t give up!
I worked my ass off all last semester, I studied harder than I’ve ever studied in my life, and I barely passed my classes. It was far from the first time I received disappointing grades at the end of a term. Many days came and went when I felt the whole thing was a useless exercise, that I would just be kicked out eventually anyway, so why bother? (At one point I literally felt like all of my professors were standing around my battered and bruised body, saying to each other, “Finish him!”)
Then I got my first internship. I started today, as a matter of fact. I wasn’t even going to try to get one. That’s how hopeless I felt earlier this spring. But my academic adviser urged me to get one between my last two years in my undergraduate coursework. He used the phrase, “absolutely crucial,” if I remember correctly.
While the internship has only just begun, I feel an elevation of spirit at hearing real people in the real world talking about concepts and ideas that I studied in school. It was as strange and exhilarating an experience as I’ve ever had. “Oh, yes. We learned about that concept in algorithms.” “Sure, I’ve seen a program like that in a class I took last fall.” “Hey, cool! That’s the same textbook we used in my software class last term.” I found myself saying these things, and several others just like them, pretty much all day. I realized that all of the reasons I had for being terrified of looking like a complete idiot were perhaps less well-founded than I had suspected. Suddenly all of the hard work—and I mean fucking hard work—that I did in my classes seemed relevant.
So if you’re a college student—or really, a student of any kind—and you feel that all of your soul-killing, fear-inspiring, vomit-inducing hard work is for naught, consider the possibility that you are quite wrong. It is becoming clear my professors turned the screws as tightly as they did to prepare me for work in a thoroughly challenging field. Software engineering in my case, but really this idea applies to just about any technical or professional field.
Sometimes it feels like the only thing keeping me from throwing myself out of a high window is my love of the material. I love a good math class. I love learning the theoretical limitations of how fast information can travel through machines. Now I’m certainly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I’d have dropped out by now if I didn’t love the topics I study. I simply refuse to give up. The chance to do something you love—and get paid for it—does not just fall out of the sky because you happen to be standing in the right place on the right day. You have to fucking want it.
It is this passion that keeps me from throwing in the towel and going back to slinging lattes and alphabetizing filing cabinets. And now I have yet another more reason to stay in the game: a taste of the real world. So if you find yourself in the horrible position I described above, where you just feel like it’s not worth all the hard work, fucking don’t quit. I promise you won’t regret it. There is simply nothing more satisfying than getting paid real money for doing something you not only love, but something you’ve worked hard to learn. My internship pays more than twice what I made frothing milk and doing mail runs, and a real job will likely pay even twice that.
I finally feel like I really know what I’m doing, and I just feel like a million bucks for making it this far. Learn from my win.